Ambush—Robert Taylor, Arlene Dahl, John Hodiak, Don Taylor, John McIntire, Jean Hagen, Pat Moriarty, Bruce Cowling, Leon Ames, Charles Stevens, Chief Thundercloud, Ray Teal (1950; Dir: Sam Wood)
This is a very good cavalry vs. Apaches tale, with a large cast, lots of plot, good writing and excellent use of locations with scenic Southwestern rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico. It was the final film of director Sam Wood, based on a story by western writer Luke Short.
It’s 1878 in Arizona Territory, and Mescalero Apache leader Diablito (Charles Stevens) has jumped the reservation again with his people. Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor, in his usual dark hat), a former scout for the army has been prospecting on Bailey Mountain, Diablito’s home ground. Current army scout Frank Holly (an outrageously bearded John McIntire) seeks him out for a mission at Fort Gamble, but they have to fight their way out.
Maj. Breverly (Leon Ames), the commanding officer, explains that a white woman, Mary Carlyle, traveling with a surveying party without authorization, was taken by Diablito when he slaughtered the party. Her sister Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has arrived at Fort Gamble with the new by-the-book senior captain, Ben Lorrison (John Hodiak). Breverly wants Kinsman to guide a party to rescue Mrs. Carlyle, but Kinsman declines, saying that it would take too many troopers’ lives to rescue one woman from Diablito.
There are not one but two romantic triangles going on at Fort Gamble: one involves Kinsman’s friend 2nd Lt. Linus Delaney, who’s having an affair with the wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man, Tom Conovan (Bruce Cowling), who beats her. The other develops as it becomes apparent that Lorrison wants Ann Duverall to marry him, and bit by bit Kinsman is taken with her despite himself. Kinsman steps into the middle of a drunken attack by Conovan on Delaney and punches out Conovan, who will get thrown in the guardhouse when he awakens.
Kinsman agrees to guide a patrol escorting the paymaster to Fort Craig. While they’re gone, Conovan stabs Breverly with a pitchfork and really gets thrown in the guardhouse. A sub-patrol under Delaney captures a party of Diablito’s women and Tana (Chief Thundercloud), who says he hates Diablito. Kinsman doesn’t quite believe him and gets his information from a disgruntled woman, who says that Mary Carlyle is with a party just ahead of them, alive and so far unharmed.
With Breverly out of commission with a punctured lung, Lorrison becomes acting commanding officer and decides to take after Diablito and Mary Carlyle. He believes Tana’s advice, and Kinsman decides to go along even though his advice is ignored. Lorrison insists on knowing why Kinsman changed his mind, and Kinsman honestly tells him that he doesn’t think Lorrison knows what he’s doing as well as Breverly would. They fight, and Lorrison wins handily.
Lt. Delaney gives Kinsman something to deliver to Mary Conovan if Delaney doesn’t make it.
Ward Kinsman: “Did you ever figure that maybe I won’t get back?”
Lt. Linus Delaney: “You’ll make it. People only die when they have something to live for.”
Ward Kinsman: “I know. That’s why I’m a little worried…for the first time.”
Lt. Linus Delaney: “Well, I never thought I’d see the day.”
Ward Kinsman: “That’s the point, isn’t it? To live to see the day.”
[Spoilers follow.] There are two columns involved in the pursuit, one led by Capt. Wolverson (Ray Teal), and the other by Lorrison. Tana disappears, and Kinsman goes after him. He gets Tana and finds Conovan’s body. There are also two ambushes in the movie, the first by Lorrison at a watering hole Diablito is trying to reach. Kinsman stampedes Diablito’s horses and gets Mary Carlyle, but takes a spear in the hip. Lorrison and his men are on the verge of being overrun when Wolverson’s column hits Diablito’s forces in the rear, forcing him to take off into the desert.
Capt. Ben Lorrison to Kinsman: “What do you think of the entire plan of action?”
Ward Kinsman: “I wasn’t asked.”
Capt. Ben Lorrison: “You are now.”
Ward Kinsman: “The plan is based upon what Diablito should do. You better be ready for what he can’t possibly do, but probably will.”
Lorrison, intent on finishing Diablito, takes a patrol after him, thinking correctly that they can’t get far without horses. That brings up the second ambush, by Diablito. He and his surviving men have hidden themselves in pits in the desert, leaving just enough trail to keep Lorrison following them into the trap. All of Lorrison’s patrol is killed, but so are Diabilito’s men—except for Diablito himself, who is wounded. As Kinsman and Delaney lead their own patrol to the site of the second ambush, Diablito reloads his pistol and plays dead. Lest we not get who he wants to kill, he mutters to himself, “Kinsman.” But Kinsman is wary; the trap doesn’t work this time, and Kinsman gets Diablito.
Back at Fort Gamble, Mary Conovan is now a widow, but the path is clear for her to get together with Delaney if they want to–the end is deliberately a little ambiguous for them. Kinsman stands by Ann Duverall as the flag is raised to the strains of a bugle call, just as John Ford would have directed it. No ambiguity there.
The characters in this are well differentiated and believable, although some of the well-written dialogue is crisper than real people would be able to come up with. Ward Kinsman is not infallible or invincible, as he demonstrates in his fight with Lorrison. Lorrison has some capacity to learn (unlike, say, Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache), but he’s still sure he’s right and lets his animosity with Kinsman lead him to trust the wrong souces of information and advice. Ann Duverall is not as priggish as she appears at first, and can also learn. Delaney has a little self-restraint, but not enough to keep him out of trouble, until he is overtaken by events.
Fort Gamble, as depicted in this movie, is the same setting as Fort Bravo three years later in Escape from Fort Bravo: Ray Corrigan’s ranch in Simi Valley, California. The cinematographer, Harold Lipstein, was clearly enamored of the rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico, and he used them to good effect, often from low camera angles. The excellent screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts (True Grit, 5 Card Stud, Shoot Out) from a story by Luke Short, usually a good starting source.
At this point in his career Robert Taylor had made only one western, Billy the Kid about ten years previously. He was just coming into a period when he would make several good ones. In fact, after this he also made Anthony Mann’s first western, Devil’s Doorway, and the excellent Westward the Women. This is one of the first really good cavalry movies not made by John Ford. For similar good stories of the Old Scout with a headstrong or inexperienced commanding officer, see Hondo, Duel at Diablo and Ulzana’s Raid. The plot has a number of similarities with Duel at Diablo, in particular. For another good black-and-white cavalry western from 1950, see Two Flags West, with Joseph Cotten and Linda Darnell.
Diablito is played by Charles Stevens, who was said to be Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson. He appeared in a number of westerns beginning in the mid-1930s as Indian characters of one sort or another (see Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine and The Showdown, for example).
In black and white, with a lot of plot packed into 90 minutes. The DVD has been available from Warner Bros. Archive only since 2011, and not that many people have seen it. It deserves a wider audience.